Each week, this column will cover one film on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, covering my general thoughts on the film and whether or not I think it belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. To celebrate Noirvember, I’ll be covering some remaining film noir from the list. This week’s film is #21 on the list: Chinatown (1974).
The major drawback of film noir for me is the plotting. A common trope of the genre is intricate, often convoluted narratives which start out intriguing, slowly peeling away layers to the mystery, but eventually deteriorate into endless twists and turns. This is why I tend to favor relatively stripped back narratives like Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity which focus on character rather than rapid-fire plot developments. Chinatown splits the difference, in a sense. The story sounds dreadfully dull on paper, having its protagonist uncover nefarious doings and a criminal underbelly around the California Water Wars, but it never buckles under the weight of its own convolution, and more importantly, Towne’s script is built around the principal characters. Nicholson and Dunaway give stellar performances, as usual, and though I may have disparaged John Huston’s own films on the AFI list, he excels here in a key role. The mystery is mostly captivating, even if occasionally falls into some of the same genre trappings that turn me off, and the set design, costumes, and cinematography are all spectacular—earning Academy Award nominations for each, among several others. Film noir often ends on a down note, but Chinatown’s ending may be one of the bleakest on the entire list—and one of my personal favorites.
Does It Belong on the List?
As much as I love the ending and appreciate how it distinguishes itself from other films in the genre, I can’t say it belongs on the list.